Facebook is taking new action against something readers claim to dislike: clickbait headlines designed to lure them to articles.
On Thursday, Facebook said it plans to escalate a previous effort against clickbait by demoting articles in its News Feed if their headlines contain certain, undisclosed phrases.
"These are headlines that intentionally leave out crucial information, forcing people to click to find out the answer," Facebook data scientist Alex Peysakhovich and user experience researcher Kristin Hendrix wrote in a blog post, which was shared before publication with Ad Age.
"Pages should avoid headlines that withhold information required to understand what the content of the article is, and headlines that exaggerate the article to create misleading expectations," they wrote, sounding a bit like journalism school professors. They gave an example of what not to do: "He Put Garlic In His Shoes Before Going To Bed And What Happens Next Is Hard To Believe."
To address the problem, Facebook in coming weeks will tweak the algorithm that drives the all-important News Feed so that readers get less clickbait and "more of the stories they want to see higher up in their feeds," the blog post said. This builds on an earlier effort to ding posts that "people click on and quickly come back to News Feed," meaning that they were probably disappointed by what they encountered.
And how exactly will Facebook determine what constitutes a "clickbait" headline, and therefore a story that should get lower billing in the News Feed? Facebook has built a system to make this determination, based on a set of phrases that are commonly considered to be clickbaitish. The blog post authors likened it to an email spam filter.
Publishers will likely be affected differently, depending on whether or not they regularly dabble in clickbait-esque headline tactics. Facebook said that "most Pages" probably won't see a significant change.
"Websites and Pages who rely on clickbait-style headlines should expect their distribution to decrease," Facebook said, though if they give up these dark arts, "their posts will stop being impacted by this change."
Thursday's announcement is sure to create anxiety for the media professionals entrusted with crafting headlines for Facebook. Already, some of these folks feel like they're grasping in the dark, hoping to write headlines that will catch fire and spread widely across Facebook, with their company's unique visitor goals potentially hanging in the balance.
Presciently, Hearst Magazines Digital Media President Troy Young said yesterday on a Wall Street Journal podcast that staffers "pray to the Facebook gods and open up a goat and spread the entrails over the table to figure out what's the right way to construct a headline." Now, they have to contend with the fear that crossing into the territory of clickbait will get their story penalized by Facebook.
A spokeswoman for Facebook was unable to answer questions by deadline including exactly what phrases are on the no-no list, how many such phrases will get articles demoted, whether publishers will be given the list to help guide their headline writing, and whether blue-chip publishers such as The New York Times will be at the same risk of getting stories suppressed as less-known, out-of-nowhere viral content shops.
The last time Facebook announced an algorithm tweak and struck fear in the heart of media professionals was in late June, when the company said it was prioritizing posts from friends users "care about" to the detriment of big brands.